Atmosphere, surface, edge

Winter Grey, 1991, oil on canvas, 35 x 37 in. Winter Grey, 1991, oil on canvas, 35 x 37 in.

David Leach displays a linear tour de force

By Jane A. Black

Winter Grey, 1991, oil on canvas, 35 x 37 in.

The Present Past, a retrospective exhibition of work by Emeritus Professor David Leach, was a poetic experience. The show did not deliver a driving beat; instead, what emanated was a gentle rhythm, the cadence of the carefully chosen. “Reticence is my middle name,” Leach stated in his artist lecture.
As poetry is about extraction and needn’t say everything to succeed, Leach’s drawings, prints and paintings are about making each line, each stroke and texture, each moment matter.
The survey was on view at the Robert and Elaine Stein Galleries at Wright State University March 30 to May 1, and extended from 1971 through 2010. It represented 40 years of study and practice, revisiting the lessons learned and encountering the blank page at hand. Included were works Leach created as he pursued his graduate degree in printmaking from Ohio University, recent figure studies and a number of pieces that represented his travels on sabbatical and not. Much of the work was tied to his days in the WSU studios, interacting with students, classes and colleagues.
While at first the viewer was likely to sort the work into the usual landscape, abstract, still life and figure drawing buckets, other groupings slowly surfaced. The fact was that the appearance of a tree or a table became much less important than what kind of stroke and texture defined it. What became evident was the way Leach pulls apart each scene into form and composition, and the way in which he handles the pencil, the stylus, the brush. Winter Light demonstrated the vigorous depth a litho crayon can provide, while Winter Grey showed equally strong handling in strokes of oil paint. Sparse Trees was delicately defined in gouache, as was Road to Carpentras in charcoal pencil. Some of the lithographs on view were incredibly airy – Leach described creating them with “just the weight of the pencil.” A single work sometimes contained a plethora of techniques, such as Vase, from 2004, which was a two-color intaglio spitbite line etching with soft ground drypoint and chine collé (a poetic string of words, indeed).
It seems each face, each table, each tree and doorway Leach depicts is dear to him. Included were images of his wife and one of his daughters; Leach acknowledged that his “family of readers make good models.” In the large drawing Laurie Reading, the motif of talisman arises in the image-within-an-image, which is repeated in his still life works as well. This one contained Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, a painting in which the model demonstrates a similar level of concentration as Leach’s model.
Views of trees in every season – but often winter, when line is most emphasized in trunk, limb and shadow – were abundant. Some were generated from the windows of his home studio, and some from “little pockets and parks close to my home,” he said. There were urban trees and pollarded trees, too, from his travels. Visitors may have recognized landscapes that hang on the Wright State campus. These massive paintings, one covering about 25 square feet of wall space, were part of a large body of work geographically based in the woods around Wright State.
Tables were another prevalent series from very early on. Leach described the object as “the place where things happen,” and further stated, “the notion of ‘tableness’ has stayed with me.”
Much of the work presented was monochromatic, appropriate to his early interest in photography and film. He described the influence of cinema as he had seen each Tuesday night when he was living in New York City from 1969-70. “I was most interested,” he said, “in the amount of grey in the film.” When working in color, though, such as Studio Window from Threshold No. 2 and Untitled (Table Study 1), Leach’s work is lush and nuanced without being dark or muddy. A screen print, Studio, from 1983-84 displays the same expertise but in the opposite way: essentially printed in Easter egg-colored pastel inks, it is nonetheless subtle and strong.
Another way in which his work continued to move was toward the conceptual and non-objective. “Because photography transfers an image into the monocular, it is a distortion of reality, a means of abstraction,” he said. Particularly gorgeous are the pure forms seen in the monumental Stage. The floors, walls and doors dance in and out of view; the three-dimensional spatial relationships appear, then vanish.
Deeply interested in philosophy as well, Leach said he was more attuned to “allusion, rather than illusion and in language.” He described one of his early works depicting graffiti as “scribbled over, obscured – kind of like the language we have.” Also included in the exhibit were text-laden images and collaborations with poets. Sometimes his drawings were in reaction to the words in the classic sense of illustration, but sometimes the writer and artist worked in ekphrasis, with the poet creating a literary description of Leach’s work of art.
There is much to be said for the opportunity to view the arc of an artist’s work. Fortunately, a lovely catalogue designed by Tess Cortés was published, commemorating the exhibition with a foreword by curator Penny Park and an essay by Carol Nathanson.

Jane A. Black is a fiber artist and the executive director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. Visit the gallery at 118 N. Jefferson St. or visit their website at Follow her on Twitter @lookingabout. She can be reached at

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